Top 10 Midrange PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - Three new systems on the midrange chart bring excellent performance scores to the ball but leave the high-priced pumpkin outside. The new MicroFlex-700A from Micro Express captures the number one spot, but the Xi Computer 700K MTower edges out all others with a PC WorldBench 98 score of 295.

1 Micro Express Microflex-700A

WHAT'S HOT: This MicroFlex makes upgrades a snap. One large thumbscrew secures the top of the case, after which either side pops off and goes back on smoothly. Though the interior's a bit cluttered, you'll find four open expansion slots and four open drive bays. The smooth and comfy Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard makes typing a pleasure--if you are accustomed to the design. Micro Express offers an above-average four-year parts and labor warranty.

WHAT'S NOT: The thick system manual contains lots of photos and illustrations, but it looks as if it was photocopied, and the pictures are tough to make out.

When we started up other applications while playing our test movie on the 6X DVD-ROM drive, the system paused occasionally. Micro Express's tech support quality rates only Fair in our anonymous calls.

WHAT ELSE: While the MicroFlex's PC WorldBench 98 score of 282 is slightly slower than average for Athlon-700 systems we've looked at, this score shows that the system is still very fast. The Impression 7Plus DE-770 17-inch monitor displays deep, rich colors; text blurred somewhat a resolution of 1280 by 1024, but remained sharp at 1024 by 768.

BEST USE: This MicroFlex would be at home in any small office that needs athletic PC performance at a bargain price.

2 XI Computer 700K MTower

WHAT'S HOT: A $250 price drop pushes this fast AMD Athlon-powered system down to $1699. With a PC WorldBench 98 score of 295, it's quicker than most similarly configured systems and the fastest on the midrange chart. It also has the largest hard drive on the chart--22GB. The Xi's easy-open case pops on and off smoothly. The uncluttered interior features plenty of expansion room, with three open PCI slots and four open drive bays.

WHAT'S NOT: While the 700K MTower ships with solid documentation for most of its hardware components, it lacks an overall system manual. The funky blue midsize tower gives the system a nice "fortress of solitude" look, but trying to find the awkwardly located power button can seem like a game of Where's Waldo?

WHAT ELSE: The 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor produced bright colors and crisp text at 1024 by 768 resolution, but it blurred at 1280 by 1024. The Koss SW/115 three-speaker set has a svelte design but produces slightly thin sound. The ergonomic keyboard includes a wrist rest and a unique set of mouse keys--presumably to handle mouse cursor functions in case of an input device meltdown.

BEST USE: The 700K MTower delivers the goods for power-hungry users without maxing out your credit card.

3 Quantex SM667

WHAT'S HOT: The SM667's score of 282 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests is several points above average for PIII-667 systems. With four open slots and four open bays, the minitower case has plenty of expansion room. The keyboard provides buttons for frequently used applications and Web sites, and the color-coded ports assist setup.

WHAT'S NOT: The flimsy side panel requires you to remove two screws, and the plastic tabs that secure it can be bent easily. Once inside, you'll find a fairly cluttered interior. The Quantex Corp. XP175N 17-inch monitor displays washed-out colors and blurry text at normal resolutions.

WHAT ELSE: The Altec Lansing ACS 33W three-speaker set delivered crisp and loud sound through the Aureal Vortex2 sound card. The system manual, although fairly slim, provides you with lots of helpful screen shots, and documentation includes a setup guide for Windows 98.

BEST USE: Fine speed and price make general business computing the best fit for this Quantex. We suggest you upgrade the monitor, however.

4 Axis Systems Orion CXV

WHAT'S HOT: Its PC WorldBench 98 score of 270 makes the Orion one of the fastest Pentium III-600 systems we've tested with Windows 98 installed. The system carries a 8X DVD-ROM drive (which played smoothly and clearly) and a 4X/2X/24X CD-RW drive.

WHAT'S NOT: Expanding this standard beige midsize tower is a chore: You must remove four screws and take off the entire case to get inside; there, you'll find messy cables and wires hindering access to the RAM slots and two open bays. Though the Axis contains ample documentation for individual components, it lacks a printed manual for the system itself (an electronic one is loaded on the system).

WHAT ELSE: The Adobe Acrobat PDF manual contains lots of information on troubleshooting and setup, as well as myriad illustrations. Audiophiles will love the three-speaker Altec Lansing ACS33 set, which delivers crisp sound and powerful bass in concert with the Sound Blaster Live card. Colors on the Optiquest V95 19-inch monitor looked washed out, but text remained sharp, even at 1600 by 1200.

BEST USE: Billed as a member of Axis's multimedia line and lacking a network card, this Orion would be best as a stand-alone PC for general business use.

5 Micron Millennia Max

WHAT'S HOT: The system's mammoth case opens easily--push down a handle on the back, and the side panel slides off. (To reattach it, press the handle again.) The Millennia Max's 8X DVD-ROM drive gave smooth playback.

WHAT'S NOT: Despite the huge interior, cables impede access to the RAM slots.

The 17-inch Micron 700VX monitor produced bright colors but slightly blurry text. (You can upgrade to a sharper Trinitron monitor for $99 extra.) The Advent AV009 three-piece speaker set mustered disappointingly weak audio.

WHAT ELSE: The system's PC WorldBench 98 score of 250, while speedy, is average for a PIII-600. Accessing expansion cards for upgrades is simple: Loosen a thumbscrew on a small metal rail that secures them, and you're in.

BEST USE: The Millennia Max PIII-600 fills the bill as a powerful, upgradable, bare-bones multimedia system.

6 Systemax Venture PVO-600A

WHAT'S HOT: Solid multimedia hardware surrounds this reasonably priced ($1649) machine. The AOC Spectrum 7Glr 17-inch monitor produces impressively rich, saturated colors and crisp text, and the Cambridge SoundWorks SBS52 three-speaker set pumps out powerful sound. The 4X/4X/24X CD-RW drive enables you to write and rewrite data to your heart's content. Unless you traffic in gargantuan files, the 20GB hard drive will take a long time to fill up.

Interior access is outstanding: The midsize tower case pops off smoothly when you depress a lever on the side.

WHAT'S NOT: The cheap feeling keyboard flexes easily, and though typing is quiet, the keys--especially backspace--are so small they invite mistakes.

WHAT ELSE: The Venture PVO-600A earned a 273 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests--average for an Athlon-600 system running Windows 98. Though some cables crisscross the interior, you'll enjoy unimpeded access to the four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open drive bays.

BEST USE: With its CD-RW drive, high-grade monitor, and top-notch sound, this is an excellent multimedia PC.

7 Cybermax Enthusiast A650W

WHAT'S HOT: The A650W shows how multimedia should be on a high-end system. The CyberMax AT1097F 19-inch Trinitron monitor displayed rich colors in test images, and text remained crisp up to the maximum resolution of 1600 by 1200.

The Altec Lansing ADA305 three-speaker set produces excellent sound and has USB connectivity for digital controls. The 8X DVD-ROM drive played our test video smoothly, even when we opened other applications.

WHAT'S NOT: To get inside, you must remove the entire case; however, the case uses thumbscrews and requires no tools to open. The A650W posted a 276 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests--low for the Athlon-650s we've tested but not far off.

WHAT ELSE: With four open slots and six open bays in the mostly clear interior, finding room for expansion shouldn't be a problem for quite a while.

BEST USE: A little bit of everything from business applications to occasional gaming. This PC should attract experienced users who are spending their own cash.

8 IBM PC 300GL

WHAT'S HOT: Powered by a PIII-600 processor, the 300GL managed a PC WorldBench 98 score of 255--slightly above the average for similarly equipped PIII-600s running Windows 98. Three thumbscrews make opening the desktop case a breeze, and the detailed system manual contains lots of excellent diagrams and troubleshooting information.

WHAT'S NOT: The PC 300GL contains neither a network interface nor a modem. The integrated speakers generate weak, tinny sound.

WHAT ELSE: The 17-inch IBM G74 monitor produces sharp text even at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024, but the colors look faded. Though the Number Nine SR9 graphics card features a digital output jack (for connecting flat-panel displays), the analog monitor we received required an adapter that stuck out several inches from the back. The PC 300GL offers three open slots and a single open drive bay.

BEST USE: The IBM PC 300GL is a fast, basic system for offices with extra modems or network cards on hand.

9 NEC Powermate ES 5250

WHAT'S HOT: The $1758 PowerMate ES 5250's well-designed case puts useful controls at your fingertips. A bar at the top of the tower houses power and sleep buttons, a volume control, and a headphone jack. The interior leaves room for substantial expansion, with five open slots (four PCI and one ISA) and three open drive bays.

WHAT'S NOT: Expansion cards fit into the case upside down, making installation awkward, and messy wiring impedes your access to them.

WHAT ELSE: Color on the NEC S770 17-inch monitor looks washed out, but text was sharp at 1024 by 768 resolution. The PowerMate's chassis features color-coded ports and a case lock.

BEST USE: The affordable, network-ready PowerMate ES 5250 should fit well in offices that don't demand overwhelming speed.

10 PC Connection Epiq BPS 8000

WHAT'S HOT: The Epiq BPS 8000 is easy to set up: It includes a thorough system manual, a handy quick-setup guide, and manuals for the individual components.

With four open slots and six open bays, there's plenty of room for expansion.

The bundled cabling obstructs RAM access, but not the expansion slots. The Epiq's score of 253 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests is average for similarly configured PIII-600 systems.

WHAT'S NOT: Gaining access to the spacious interior requires removing three screws and the entire case. Colors in our test images appeared dark and washed out on the 17-inch Pionex Technologies P70S monitor. Though text looked sharp at the standard resolution of 1024 by 768, it blurred at the maximum 1280 by 1024.

WHAT ELSE: The Altec Lansing ACS22 two-speaker set provides decent sound but limited bass. The lightweight keyboard was a tad flimsy but permitted smooth and quiet typing.

BEST USE: Though a bit pricey for its configuration, the Epiq BPS 8000 PIII will do a solid job as a small-office system.

Gimme a B, Gimme an E

Tech Trend

Some of the new Pentium III systems showing up on our charts use processors with extra letters in their names--PIII-600B or PIII-550E, for example.

Curiously, the letters have no relation to each other, and you could even end up spying a PIII-600EB (see the number-four midrange PC).

The E in a processor's name denotes that it is a .18-micron Pentium III, says Intel spokesperson George Alfs. Intel is transitioning from a .25-micron to the smaller .18-micron process of creating chips. The smaller size allows Intel to make faster processors with more transistors (and added capabilities) on a smaller chip. But during the transition, Intel will be making chips with both processes--hence the need to differentiate the CPUs with an added letter.

However, a .18 micron PIII won't include the trailing E if there's no .25 micron PIII of the same speed. The E shows up only on midrange Pentiums, such as 533-MHz, 550-MHz, and 600-MHz speeds. "You won't normally see it on a 650-MHz, 700-MHz, or 733-MHz, because those are all Coppermines--the PIIIs made with the .18-micron process," Alfs says.

The B can be spotted on several processors, including a version of Intel's fastest 800-MHz CPU. The B indicates a 133-MHz bus, as opposed to a 100-MHz bus processor. Again, if Intel makes a 133-MHz bus PIII but no 100-MHz bus version, you won't see a trailing B.

Intel makes four different combinations, so you can see a B, an E, neither letter, or both.

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